Jan 8, 2008
Honeycrisp patent expiration not expected to change sales

The Honeycrisp apple’s U.S. patent protection is scheduled to expire in November.

What does that mean for the apple industry? Not much, according to two nursery vice presidents and an apple breeder. The Honeycrisp’s patent holder, the University of Minnesota (UM), will lose some revenue, but it won’t be the end of the world. Nurseries don’t expect sales to go up, even though growers will no longer be paying a royalty fee.

“Growers typically don’t make decisions based on the extra costs of a patented variety,” said Phil Baugher, marketing vice president for Adams County Nursery in Pennsylvania. “If the value of the fruit decreases in the marketplace, the demand for trees will decrease. That’s always the case.”

A grower would be foolish to wait for a patent to expire before planting a variety like Honeycrisp, which has been the No. 1 seller for Adams County Nursery for the past three years, Baugher said.

Honeycrisp also has been a top seller the last few years for Summit Tree Sales in Michigan, according to Wanda Heuser Gale, vice president of sales and marketing.

“I don’t think the loss of the patent will change in any way the number of Honeycrisp trees going into the ground,” she said.

UM’s patent protects Honeycrisp’s genetic material, making it illegal to propagate the Honeycrisp tree without authorization from the university. Nurseries that sell Honeycrisp have to be licensed by the patent holder, according to David Bedford, a UM research scientist and one of the team of breeders that discovered Honeycrisp.

Every major nursery in the United States sells Honeycrisp trees, he said.

“If you’re a nursery selling apple trees and you don’t have Honeycrisp, that’s a pretty big hole in your inventory.”

Currently, the university receives $1.30 for each Honeycrisp tree sold. When the U.S. patent runs out in November, the university will lose a productive revenue stream, but it won’t be a total loss because Honeycrisp is still protected in Europe and other parts of the world. Those patents won’t run out for a while. Also, the university has two varieties working their way through the U.S. market – Zestar! and Snowsweet – that, hopefully, will one day replace the lost revenue from Honeycrisp, Bedford said.

Other varieties are in the breeding program’s pipeline as well, but releasing them is a slow process. Bedford has been with UM for 28 years, and some of his crosses are just now starting to be released, he said.

“(UM’s) breeding program has been in existence for 99 years,” he said. “It’s like a big ocean liner. You don’t turn it on a dime.”

Apple industry patents for the “best of the best” varieties are getting increasingly strict, where they lock up every part of a plant’s genetic material – even the pollen, Bedford said.

The Honeycrisp patent, approved in 1991, is a standard plant patent. When it expires, the restrictions on propagation will be lifted. Nurseries will be able to breed it and growers will be able to grow it without paying royalties, Bedford said.

The apple breeder wanted to make one thing clear: The date of propagation is what matters, not the date of sale. If a tree is budded or grafted before the patent runs out in November, but sold after it expires, the tree is still subject to patent enforcement. It’s a fine point, but nurseries understand it for the most part, Bedford said.

People shouldn’t complain about paying patent fees to university breeding programs. There are few such programs left and they’re expensive to maintain. Besides, the varieties they release are worth every cent, Heuser Gale of Summit Tree Sales said.

Though UM will lose control of Honeycrisp propagation, it won’t lose control of the Honeycrisp name. The trademark and the patent are distinct, and the university still owns the trademark, Bedford said.

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